We’re back from our trip to Israel and Jordan. I have to tell you that it was a life-changing trip for all of us. You have to walk around Israel and Jordan with a Bible in one hand because so many of the events of the Bible took place right there in the land. I want to take a couple of weeks to share some of what we learned with all of you.
Our very first stop was a seaside city called Caesarea. Caesarea is an ancient city that dates back to the 5th century B.C. The Romans had taken control of Caesarea in the year 6 A.D. and the city became the capital of the province of Judea for the next 500 years. It also became the headquarters for the Roman fighting forces stationed in Judea. The city really took off after the Roman Emperor Augustus gave the city to King Herod in 30 B.C. Herod was a master architect and his building projects in Caesarea were nothing short of spectacular. Two of Herod’s building projects that led to Caesarea becoming such an important city was the building of a huge harbor covering 40 acres and able to handle 300 ships and the building of aqueducts to bring fresh water into the city. Before the time of Herod Caesarea had no fresh water, but Herod solved the problem by building two aqueducts from the southern slopes of Mount Carmel into the city, a distance of ten miles. You can still see remains of the aqueducts today.
With the huge harbor and beautiful city built by Herod, Caesarea became one of the most important cities on the coastal plains. Because of its magnificent harbor and flowing fresh water Caesarea grew into a large city made up of both Jews and Gentiles. This posed problems because the Jews were devoted to the exclusive worship of God while the Gentiles worshiped all kinds of pagan idols as well as the Emperor. The relationship of the Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea was tense to say the least. Around 66 A.D. the synagogue was desecrated and 20,000 Jews were massacred. This led to the First Jewish revolt which brought about the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Titus, the Roman Emperor whose troops destroyed the Temple, sentenced 2,500 Jews to fight with wild beasts in the amphitheater in Caesarea as entertainment for his brother Domitian’s birthday.
In the time that we have remaining today I want to introduce you to one of the soldiers who called Caesarea home. His name was Cornelius and he was a Gentile, a mortal enemy of the Jews. In Acts 10 we learn that Cornelius was a “centurion” in what was known as the “Italian Regiment.” A Roman legion was made up of 6,000 men, divided into ten cohorts of 600 men. There were sixty centurions in each Roman legion and Cornelius was one of the 60 commanders who had charge of 100 men.
We also learn from our study of Acts 10 that Cornelius and his family were “devout and God-fearing, he gave generously to those in need, and he prayed to God regularly.” Let’s take a look at Acts 10:3-8 and see what happened to this Gentile soldier.
3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” 4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa. (Acts 10:3-8 NIV)
Remember that Cornelius was a Gentile. A vile, pagan, dog of a man. That’s what the Jews called the Gentiles, dogs! In Acts 10 we run into this despised man and what do we learn about him? He had abandoned his pagan ways and he had devoted himself to the God of the Jews in the best way he knew how. He was a man of prayer. He feared God. He gave to those who were in need. He didn’t know the Hebrew Bible. He didn’t visit the Temple in Jerusalem. He was a Gentile. Yet if you look at his life I will assure you that he was living, as best as he knew how, for the glory of God. What was Cornelius doing when he had his vision of the angel of God? Acts 10:3 doesn’t specify. Luke simply tells us that it was about 3:00 pm when he had the vision. I will tell you that Cornelius was praying. You may ask, “How do you know that?” I’m so glad you asked. If you will turn with me to Acts 3:1 we can find the answer to our question.
1 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer– at three in the afternoon. (Acts 3:1 NIV)
Three in the afternoon was the most important time of prayer for the Jews. Peter and John were heading to the temple to pray at 3 in the afternoon. Cornelius had stopped what he was doing to go to God in prayer at 3 in the afternoon. There is an important lesson for us to learn here my friends. We could spend several weeks studying the passages of God’s Word where people are praying and God moves, things happen. This shouldn’t surprise us because God has told us in Jeremiah 33:2-3.
2 “This is what the LORD says, he who made the earth, the LORD who formed it and established it– the LORD is his name: 3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’ (Jeremiah 33:2-3 NIV)
When God’s people pray God moves, He answers, He strengthens, He encourages, He comforts, He acts! 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says, “Pray continually!” Cornelius was praying when he had the vision to send some of his men to Joppa to get Simon Peter. Now Joppa is about 30 miles away from Caesarea so it took the men some time to get there. While Cornelius’ men were making their way to Joppa, Simon Peter was staying at the home of Simon the tanner who lived by the Mediterranean Sea. We read in verse 9 that Peter went up on the roof to pray.
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 16This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. 17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. (Acts 10:9-17 NIV)
Isn’t it interesting? What was Peter doing on the roof of Simon’s house? He was praying. I don’t need to point out to you once again that God is at work when we pray. Peter wasn’t as excited about his vision as Cornelius was about his was he? Peter saw a sheet let down from heaven with all kinds of animals and birds in it, clean and unclean. Peter was hungry and God told him to take one of the animals, kill it, grill it, and eat it. Peter was a good Jew. He wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t “kosher.” In Leviticus 11 and Leviticus 20:25-26 we find dietary laws and lists of what the Israelites could and couldn’t eat. God had given these to His people to separate them from the pagan people who lived in the land. Peter had never had a ham and cheese sandwich and he wasn’t about to start now. He was not going to violate the laws of God!
What Peter didn’t realize was that the new covenant had changed things. Jesus had died on the cross to give His life for Jew and Gentile alike. The wall of separation had been overcome by the Cross. Jesus had torn down every wall that separates us from each other. Paul understood that the dietary laws were nullified at the cross and that is why he wrote to the Romans,
1 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. (Romans 14:1-3 NIV)
What you eat or choose not to eat is a matter of preference, not law. Peter’s vision of the sheet with clean and unclean animals really wasn’t about Peter’s diet—it had a much greater significance. God was preparing him for a world-wide mission. We read in Acts 10:18, that while Peter was still pondering his vision, Cornelius’ men were were searching for Peter.
18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” 21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” 22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” 27 Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. (Acts 10:18-28 NIV)
Peter made the trip to Caesarea and when he arrived at Cornelius’ house there was a big crowd of Gentiles waiting on him. What a shock! The prejudice of the Jews was deeply ingrained in Peter. The Gentiles made him uncomfortable and he told the truth. He said that it was against the law to associate with Gentiles, and it was, but not because they were Gentiles. God called His people to separate themselves from the surrounding nations because God knew that they would turn the hearts of His people away to their idols and so-called gods. In Deuteronomy 6:13-15 we read,
13 Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. 14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; 15 for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. (Deuteronomy 6:13-15 NIV)
I need to clarify something for us. It wasn’t that God was simply calling His people, the Jews, to distance themselves from other nations, He was calling His people to distance themselves from anyone who would entice them to serve other gods. Deuteronomy 30:16-18 teaches us about this. Read along with me.
16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (Deuteronomy 30:16-18 NIVO)
When Peter saw the big crowd of Gentiles who had gathered at Cornelius’ house the vision that had been so muddy and confusing became crystal clear. Peter said, “But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” Peter got it. He didn’t know exactly what God was doing, but he knew that God had led him to Cornelius’ house. Peter asked, “Why did you send for me?” Cornelius told Peter about his vision. After Cornelius shared his vision with Peter, we read,
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. (Acts 10:34-36 NIV)
Peter went on to tell the Gentiles the story of Jesus from the time of John the Baptist preaching “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” all the way through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection on the third day. Peter went on to tell the Gentiles that before Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father He commanded His followers to preach the Good News to the people. Then something marvelous happened. Peter didn’t offer an altar call. He didn’t tell the Gentiles to bow their heads and search their hearts. He didn’t tell them they needed to get right with the Lord. He hadn’t even finished his sermon when we read in verse 44.
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. (Acts 10:44-48 NIV)
God was working! God was working! Peter was obedient to what God had called him to do. Cornelius was obedient to what God had called him to do. But it was God who was working! We should never forget that my friends. We must be obedient to what God has called us to do. Forget about whether people think it is right or prudent or wise or beneficial; just be obedient to what God has called you to do.
I can remember when we first came to this church—a white church in the middle of a predominately black neighborhood. I was a white pastor serving an aging, declining; some would have said “dying” white church in the middle of a predominately black neighborhood. I knew God was calling us to be something that we were not, something this church couldn’t even imagine. God was not calling Britton Christian Church to be a white church; He was calling this church to be a lighthouse of hope to all people.
After I had been here awhile some folks started asking me, “What is your vision for Britton Christian Church?” I was honest with those who asked. I told them what I felt God was calling us to be, even though we hadn’t seen any evidence that the work had begun. They looked at me like I had an arm growing out of my forehead. I had the opportunity to go to some friend’s house one night and meet one of the most influential Christian leaders in the world. My friends had told him about Britton Christian Church and he wanted to meet me. He asked the question, “What do you see God doing at Britton?” I told him the same thing I had told everyone else. When I finished talking he said, “Mike I understand your passion, but let me share with you what I’ve learned through many years of our ministry. We tried to reach all people but it didn’t work until we learned that for us to reach Asians we had to hire Asian workers, to reach Latinos we had to hire Latinos, to reach African-Americans we had to hire African-Americans.” I was crushed. When I got home late that night Connie was waiting up for me to see what had happened. When I told her she said, “Mike, we didn’t come here to follow his vision, we came here to follow God’s!”
Britton Christian Church is not a white church, black church, brown church, red church, or yellow church—it is a lighthouse of hope for all people! This is what God has called us to be and it is His work! We must be obedient to what God has called us to do and be, but we must also know that it is His work!
I’m so glad that Peter was obedient to God aren’t you? I’m so glad that Cornelius was obedient to God aren’t you? Because of the obedience of these two men, acting in accordance with God’s will, the very first Gentile was baptized in Caesarea! Cornelius was the first Gentile baptized, but how many millions more of us Gentiles have come to know Jesus since Cornelius was transformed from a God-fearer to a Jesus-follower?
Not everyone was excited about what happened. In the very next chapter of Acts we read that Jews throughout Judea heard the rippling of the waters of Cornelius’ baptism. Read along with me from Acts 11:1-3.
1 The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:1-3 NIV)
God has not called us to be pleasing to those around us—He has called us to be obedient. If you are going to be obedient to God then get ready—He will take you where you never thought you would go, He will give you tasks you could never have seen yourself doing, and He will use you like you never dreamed you could be used.
God’s plan are much bigger than ours my friend. I was reminded of that while I was in Israel and Jordan. Because of the information we are fed through the media, most Americans think of Palestinians as terrorist. We see news reports, we watch video coming in through our televisions, and we draw our conclusions. I want you to know that God loves the Palestinian people and He is working in their communities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We went to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, one day while we were in Israel. It’s not advised, but I wanted our people to have their eyes opened to what God is doing. There in Bethlehem we met a woman named Iman who loves Jesus and has graduated from Bible College. She led us on a tour of the Church of the Nativity and shared her faith with us. We met a Palestinian business owner name John. John and his employees make the most beautiful hand carved figures out of olive wood. While he was showing us his factory he told us that a couple of years ago he cut his production by 40% so he could help other believers who also carve figurines out of olive wood. Life is hard in the West Bank and these home-based businesses are struggling to make it. John cut production so he could buy their products and sell them through his store. I said, “Wait a minute. I need to make sure I understand you. You cut your production by 40% to help your competitors?” John said, “No, I didn’t cut my production to help my competitors. They are not my competitors, they are my community.” God is at work my friends. Never doubt His work. Enlarge your vision of His ability and willingness to reach out to those you might categorize as the least likely to come to know Jesus.
There may be someone here this morning, or someone reading this lesson who has doubted God or rejected God throughout your life. I want you to know that He loves you more than you can ever imagine. Won’t you surrender your life to Him this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
Oklahoma City, OK.
January 15, 2017